As a movie idea, Warm Bodies absolutely should not work. The premise sounds like the worst kind of trash culture recycling: the zombie apocalypse movie crossed with the romantic comedy.
Surprisingly, Warm Bodies not only works, it occasionally soars. Thanks to the clever script by writer/ director Jonathan Levine (50/50), the film finds an agreeable horror-comedy tone reminiscent of classics like An American Werewolf in London.
Nicholas Hoult (the kid from About a Boy) plays "R," one of the legion of shuffling undead wandering the city after an unspecified apocalypse. The zombies in Warm Bodies can only grunt, but by way of voiceover narration, we learn that R is thoughtful and rather bummed about his existential dilemma. His communication skills improve after he falls in love with Julie (Teresa Palmer), a human survivor from the local enclave.
The reason why R falls for Julie is one of the film's several playful updates to zombie movie mythology. Zombies prefer brains, it seems, because they give access to the victim's memories. So when R eats the head of Julie's departed boyfriend, he gets to feel love once again. Julie likes R, too, since he doesn't try to eat her and isn't too zombified—just a little pale. He looks like a Smiths fan circa 1985.
Warm Bodies wrings lots of good laughs out of its premise, and even a little heart. Some of the movie's best moments belong to former Daily Show correspondent Rob Corddry as a fellow zombie who leads a kind of undead hippie revolution. Corddry is a huge comic talent—his Adult Swim comedy Children's Hospital is a real gem. John Malkovich also drops in as Julie's dad, leader of the human survivors. As usual, his unnerving stare is scarier than anything else onscreen.
Lightweight and fun, Warm Bodies is also much smarter and more generous than it needs to be, and it suggests the zombie movie thing isn't entirely played out yet. Future historians are going to have a good time parsing the cultural subtexts of our abiding zombie obsession. Here's a movie that flips the script nicely: Forget the shotgun. Have you hugged your zombie today?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Short lives."